A performer known for his whimsically surreal shows, Manchester-based comedian Tom Short’s latest project weaves horror and the occult into an hour-long stand-up gig. The Stand Up Horror Show takes influence from icons of the genre and works them into a format that rarely broaches horror’s border.
Our writer Kirstie Summers caught up with Tom to find out more about the show as he previews it around the UK ahead of a stint at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer.
Kirstie: Tell us about The Stand Up Horror Show.
Tom: So, The Stand up Horror Show is a one-man occult cabaret. However, there is a twist in that all of the acts that have been booked have perished before the gig. It involves stories, jokes, magic and fortune-telling, and ends with a dangerous magic trick; me having a nail cannon fired at me and dodging the nail.
I think it will be something that is very unique. And I think up at the Edinburgh Fringe you have to be unique given the amount of different shows that there are at the festival.
Kirstie: What inspired you to create a show that blends horror and comedy?
Tom: I was taken to an art exhibition called The Horror Show in London. It was excellent! I wish it was the kind of thing that could have a permanent installation.
It looked at how artists had used horror to highlight the darker side of society from the 1970s through to the present day. It had many different artists in there that have inspired me over the years, such as The Mighty Boosh and Lee Bowery, and David Bowie and Spitting image. I was developing the show already and was looking for that missing piece and thought “Can you apply that horror lens to a stand-up show?”
Kirstie: What are your biggest horror influences?
Tom: My favourite horror films are Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, along with George Romero.
However, I think it is also important to know which of your influences to pick up and which to leave behind. Unfortunately, those did not fully feel like they would be correct for incorporating into The Stand Up Horror Show.
Looking at the various intersections of horror, I was able to look at which elements I wanted to bring through, character-wise. I was intrigued by The Phantom of the Opera as played by Michael Crawford, a performer often associated with comedy thanks to Frank Spencer. I took a lot of inspiration from that and added in elements of my own comedy persona, who I think is also very put-upon by the situations that I find myself in on stage, doing improvised, clowning, heavy crowd work.
(Little fun fact for you: The Phantom of the Opera inspired the characterisation of Mewtwo from the first Pokémon movie… If you want more insights into the Pokémon universe, I also host a Pokémon podcast called Talking Trubbish.)
I then added in some parts of Saw and slasher horror in regards to myself on stage not being in control of the show and being forced to step in to perform these stunts and set pieces against my will. There are blood and props in this show for which I took inspiration from Lucio Fulci’s visceral make-up and roughness. The props are rusty, and one of the ushers ends up covered in blood.
Kirstie: How did you decide which horror themes to bring into the show?
Tom: Once I had decided to apply the lens of horror to the show, I then asked myself “Where are the intersections of horror and comedy?” Initially, my thoughts were to mine B-movie horror such as Nightmare City, The Bed, Them! and various Hammer films, where they can often fall into the so-bad-it’s-good category.
But as I carried on mining this idea, that’s when I started to see opportunities. Crowd work sections could become infused with fortune-telling and mediumship; the stories could become scary stories, and so on. All of a sudden, I had all these small sections of a show, inspired by the occult, which had a cabaret feeling to them.
The final thing was bringing it all to my director/collaborator and all-around comedic genius Ian Angus Wilkie. He felt there was something missing and pushed for a dangerous element, one that would satiate the fans of horror and comedy and leave everyone satisfied. This is the idea; The Stand Up Horror Show is not Tom Short’s show. I am merely the understudy who has to fill in due to a magic trick going wrong just before the show starts. As such, I have to fill in and perform that trick which involves being shot at by an audience member with a modified nail gun.
Kirstie: Were there any character ideas you played around with but ended up not incorporating? Do you think you’ll revisit them at any point?
Tom: There were so many!
I actually was going to do a time travel show at one point, maybe this time last year. It would have looked at jokes throughout time in a Tardis powered by laughter, but the time machine malfunctions, trapping me and the audience. As such, we rewrite and remix classic comedy routines to get the time machine working again. It would have been very much in the vein of HG Wells’ The Time Machine and a character more in line with Caractapus Potts, as opposed to what I have now.
This untitled sci-fi show would have had elements of horror in it. I believe science fiction is a variation on the horror genre and can similarly make comments on society, which I think is incredibly interesting. Most of the hallmarks of the genre do to some extent.
But I felt like it was becoming too complex, so I decided I would revisit that idea one day in the future, potentially.
Kirstie: What inspired you to use tarot reading to help promote the show?
Tom: When I was beginning to develop the show, I asked Wilkie, who had helped develop my past show Wheel of Misfortune. Wheel of Misfortune was a show with a 24-point wheel, and whatever the wheel landed on would dictate where the show went next. We both loved how random that show was and how the performer and the audience don’t know what will happen next.
In my attempts to move on from Wheel of Misfortune, I wanted to create something that was equally random, as I think those are the magical moments that people remember from theatre. Tarot felt like a good advert for the show and an opportunity to take that randomness, spinning it into a more intimate one-on-one setting. By chance, Wilkie performed tarot in his youth so was able to teach me the secrets whilst also looking at it with a performance-critical eye.
Kirstie: Has learning to read tarot influenced your perception of the world around you?
Tom: I went into it sceptical. To be clear, The Stand Up Horror Show is in no way designed to make fun of people who believe in these things. Firstly because I believe that would be punching down, which I’ve never felt comfortable with. I think if you transferred the idea of making fun of the belief system of witchcraft or paganism, etc., to making fun of mainstream belief systems such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc., we can see how wrong it is to make fun of people’s beliefs. I set out early on to not make fun of people with this show.
As a result, I decided I had to learn how to do things such as tarot, mediumship and divination properly. I have found, however, that a large number of the readings have been very accurate. I also learned how to do some mediumship and have described features of deceased family members I would have had no way of knowing – even sayings, and even got someone’s grandfather’s name correct too. So I am open to being a believer as I continue to practice these things more.
There are some people who have told me that they believe psychic abilities are inherited. I have since learned that my maternal grandmother regularly read tarot and my mother also practiced in her youth. Maybe that could be why I have picked it up so quickly, as I have inherited the gift, or maybe it’s all a coincidence I am applying meaning to. Who knows?
Kirstie: What are your hopes for the show going forward?
Tom: I want to be able to tour this show throughout the UK. I want to be able to take it to horror festivals and comedy festivals, where I hope it will be able to sit as something unique in both those camps and prove that I have managed to appropriately find the intersection of horror and comedy, my initial concept for the show.
I would also like to see if any rock and alternative venues would like to program the show, as I believe it would be something unique for their audience to enjoy, maybe teaming up with some local bands as a showcase of horror comedy topped off with an amazing gig.
Finally, I would also like to spin the show off into “The Stand Up Horror Show For Kids”, as children love scary stories and magic.
Kirstie: Do you have any advice for anyone hoping to blend genres in a similar way?
Tom: Every idea has been done now, and some people get down about it, but I say use that to your advantage. Allow yourself the freedom to take from your inspirations once you learn as much as you can about the genres and try to find the intersections. What is already out there that you can take inspiration from? Take all the bits that inspire you and look at how you can combine them. Remix them and turn them into your own new Frankenstein’s monster.
Tom Short is currently previewing The Stand Up Horror Show.
His next show is on Monday 3rd July at The Castle in Manchester. Book your free ticket here.
You can find out about other dates Tom is performing the show and keep up with his other work by following him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can also watch his online projects by following him on YouTube and Twitch.